Interview with Rolf Stehle

"We Are Not in the Business of Importing Culture"

In 1955, the very first Goethe Institute in the Arab world opened its doors in Beirut. Bernhard Hillenkamp spoke to Rolf Stehle, the current head of the Goethe Institute in Beirut, about successful cultural foreign policy under difficult circumstances

Interview with Rolf Stehle, head of the Goethe-Institute/Beirut (photo: Goethe-Institute/Beirut)
Rolf Stehle: "We consider our work to be a dialogue with local partners. We are not in the business of importing culture."

​​A half a century is a long time. Beirut became the first home of the Goethe Institute in the Arab world only eleven years after the end of World War II. Why Beirut?

Stehle: The institute in Beirut was opened in 1955 after institutes had been opened in Athens in 1953 and Turin and Thessaloniki the year after. Germany had discredited itself in the international community with the atrocities it committed during the war. Pursuing a foreign policy in the cultural sector was also an attempt to get back on track and join the global community again.

Lebanon was the first Arab country to accept this invitation. It was followed by Tunis in 1958, Alexandria a year later, and finally Rabat. At the time, the aim was to use classical music, readings, and lectures to cultivate a new image of Germany. To this end, ensembles travelled to the region from Germany. This was soon followed by language work.

Even during the 15-year civil war, the Goethe Institute was the only foreign cultural institute to remain open. During the war, its rooms and programme of events were a magnet for all people engaged in the cultural sector.

How has the Goethe Institute's programme changed since then?

Stehle: We consider our work to be a dialogue with local partners. We are not in the business of importing culture. The Goethe Institute searches for topics of common interest with local partners. Once we have identified interesting projects, we develop and implement them together.

The topics must be socially relevant. Some topics don't necessarily have anything directly to do with Germany, but instead deal with topics that Germany strongly upholds, such as pluralism.

Young people were invited to come together and discuss issues like democratisation, migration, or denominationalism. Young people are undoubtedly an important target group for our work. The Arab world is a young society. We address them using topical social issues.

We also involved young people from a variety of social groups and religions in a film project. School kids of both sexes learned the basic techniques of filmmaking with the help of Lebanese artists. The theme of this project was discrimination and prejudices.

Having taken part in a workshop on the issue of prejudices and conflicts, the young people then wrote scripts and made reportages based on their environment. These 10 to 20-minute long films were then shown at film festivals. Projects such as these often bring young people into parts of the city inhabited by people of a different belief to their own for the first time in their lives.

How has the Goethe Institute's programme changed, especially since September 11?

Stehle: I think that civil society issues have become a greater focus. But forms have also progressed too. More exchange programmes are being launched at present.

One example of this is the "West-Eastern Divan". This is a writers' exchange programme. Arab writers spent several weeks in Germany with German literary figures. Then the Germans spent a few weeks in the other country. This promoted not only literature, but also day-to-day encounters.

In this project, which was organised with other partners, the writers were urged to write an essay about their experiences. Michael Kleeberg, however, wrote a book about his experiences in the land of the cedar, while his exchange partner, Abbas Beydoun, published his impressions of Berlin in a volume of poetry.

Rachid Daif, who took part in the exchange programme in 2004, dealt with Joachim Helfer and his homosexuality in a book. Helfer then responded to Daif's book. A real dialogue between literary figures through literature which is extremely interesting in terms of cultural anthropology.

This means that cultural work is not just about providing information about the culture of the countries involved. In this context, it is important to point out that the Arab world is better informed about us that we are about the Arab world. Moreover, dialogues take place between individuals, not between cultures. So the goal should be to involve as many people as possible in these encounters.

Why do English-language rap bands or German-Turkish video artists perform as part of the programme of the Goethe Institute?

Stehle: We want to project an up-to-date and authentic image of Goethe's native country. Urban dance artists like Nils "Storm" Robitzky are doing innovative work and are bringing new concepts to the region. He is part of the German art scene. I think that artists such as this enrich our globalised world.

When Robitzky was here, he did more than just give a concert; we organised a workshop with local artists so that the issues could be dealt with in more detail and skills could be taught. Language is secondary. English is usually the language of communication.

How does co-operation with other European cultural institutes work in Beirut?

Stehle: The Goethe Institute considers itself to be a national and European cultural institute. Naturally there is co-operation and co-ordination. Projects are also organised by the European delegation.

The European film festival is the most successful film event in Lebanon. We have worked with the French Cultural Institute on film series, children's book projects, and on the urban dance event with Robitzky. Other cultural institutes concentrate on giving language courses.

Nevertheless, project-related work has become more important. Two out of four projects are funded by money from third parties. We often have to invent and "write up" projects. These projects are often the start of co-operation with other European cultural institutes.

What is the biggest problem associated with cultural work in modern Beirut and the region?

Stehle: Generally speaking, the limited institutional infrastructure and the lack of public funding are problematic. There is no fixed theatre ensemble or dance company. We work on a project-by-project basis. There are many idealists who get a lot of things going with limited financial means and without social security. We have to support them and try and build up structures.

At the Goethe Institute in Beirut, we have been able to expand our capacity over the past few years. Even though the number of people sent to other institutes around the world is in decline, we here in Beirut are being supported by new colleagues from Germany. This is undoubtedly a sign of the increased significance of cultural work in Beirut.

A Goethe Institute was opened in Ramallah in 1998 and in Abu Dhabi in 2006. This is clear evidence of the fact that work in this region is one of the Goethe Institute's main priorities.

Interview conducted by Bernhard Hillenkamp

© 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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